How long is it?

1. Length doesn’t have to be everything.

As we all know, length can be an issue. Underestimate it and you may find yourself kept up all night (albeit enjoyably). There are also a lot of players out there who will have no scruples when it comes to lying about it. Let us therefore take a short tour of the subject of length – particularly in the context of boardgames, where refreshingly most people want you to think that theirs is shorter than it actually is.

The first thing to say is that you don’t always have to do everything. Sometimes you really want to try a particular game but know you don’t have time to finish it. If you just want to get a feel for the game and aren’t worried about competitive scoring – well, I was going to say that it would be fine just to cut the game short, but who am I kidding? If you’re playing a game that’s long enough to merit worrying about the length then odds are you do care about competitive scoring!

My suggestion is that you should agree before you start playing on an early end point – either by omitting the final round(s) or making the win conditions less stringent. Be careful about balance when doing this in games with asymmetric player abilities or faction powers – some may be strongest in a particular part of the game and so be much more or less powerful in a shorter game. It will also often be hard to really develop your strategy in a shorter game – one way to mitigate this issue is to start all players off with extra resources or other bonuses that allow them to get going a bit faster at the beginning.

2. Lots of people can play at once.

Although games do come with time estimations, they are often wildly inaccurate. Some particular games to watch out for are Eclipse (it has taken over 8 hours nearly every time I’ve played it, which is about twice the estimate on the box), Battlestar Galactica (this game can last anywhere from 45 minutes to about seven hours, depending on what happens) and Mage Knight.

The first time I played Mage Knight I went over to a friend’s house to play it in the late afternoon, on my bike. I brought bike lights in case it lasted long enough that I had to cycle home in the dark. If I had known the game I wouldn’t have bothered – the game lasted for fifteen hours, and I cycled home in the light the next morning.

If you need to fit a game into a short time window but still want something with a bit of strategic bite – by which I mean a game where there is still a good amount of strategy, not one where players bite each other strategically – then games with simultaneous play are an excellent choice. By allowing multiple players to do stuff at the same time as each other, they drastically speed up the game, particularly with larger numbers of players. My favourite example of this, and probably my second favourite game after Agricola, is Race for the Galaxy. A more popular example is possibly Seven Wonders.

The most popular example of all will of course soon be the game I am about to design, in which players simultaneously bite each other while following some set of rules and objectives that I am yet to determine. I am toying with the idea of also allowing kicking, but I’m worried that might make it a bit too similar to football.

3. Fast boardgamers…

One final option, rather than changing the game, is to change the players. In this case I don’t literally mean that you should swap them for other people, but rather that you should try to change their behaviour. The former option, rather like the idea of changing the electorate when you don’t like how they’ve voted, is instinctively very appealing but sadly does tend to make one a tad unpopular…

There are three main methods that I have seen used to successfully speed up players. The first is to speak to them (in a friendly way) about whether they could play any faster – for example by thinking about what they’re going to do during other people’s turns so that they’re ready when play reaches them. The second is to have a timer for each player (you can buy little cubes with a clock on each face where time only advances on the one that is facing upwards – great for keeping track with multiple players). You don’t have to actually have a time limit, and in fact this often makes a game more stressful and less pleasant. The mere knowledge that everyone will be able to see, definitively, how long they have taken greatly speeds up most players. The final way is to have an actual time limit, or for a softer option in games with VP based victory conditions a points penalty for taking too long.

And so, with time constraints in mind, I shall finish here, lest my posts become the Mage Knight of boardgame-related blogging.

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I am a physicist who lives in Nottingham and I have been boardgaming for the last 10 years. My favourite boardgame is Agricola. I also enjoy playing the Yetis in Terra Mystica, hence the profile pic. I should also credit Sophie for drawing most of the cartoons that feature in the blog. Without her, there would be no grumpy oxen.

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